Comments on The King Must Die
When I left Paris, I also left behind Gone with the Wind, which I’d been reading there. When I arrived at the Hotel Mignon in Avignon, almost the first thing I noticed was a small stack of books on a shelf tucked beside the stairs up to the rooms. Beside various maps and tourist brochures that the couple who owned the small hotel kept on hand for guests were three books. I thought I would try The king Must Die by Mary Renault because it was set in ancient Greece and I was heading back in time as well as south. Avignon, where six or seven popes lived during the break with Rome, was a step towards Rome.
My room was on the first floor (above the ground floor), overlooking the street. I loved hanging out the window at night to watch pedestrians and their dogs strolling by the brightly lit shops. The street was barely wide enough to accommodate cars going in one direction and late one night as I opened the window I was startled by the sight of a man in a cherry picker across the way. On closer inspection I saw he was part of a city crew that was stringing christmas lights from one side of the street to another, attaching them to buildings on either side.
It was in that little room that I started reading the fictional account of the life of Theseus, from his childhood to his maturity when he became king of a large chunk of land. Set during the shift from mother goddess worship to patriarchy, Theseus was the only child of a single mother, a priestess in a goddess grove. He knew nothing of his father, but they both lived happily with his grandfather, king of the land. As a young man, Theseus is finally told that his father is king of a distant country and that he, Theseus has been named the heir as his father has no other children. He embarks on the long journey only to be captured by another tribe. During his time of captivity he witnesses a culture in which the ruler is a Queen, the gods are female, and the Queen marries a new king each year. At the end of the year he is killed in a ritual sacrifice. This causes Theseus to contemplate what a man needs in life. Is it enough to have a fabulous year, possibly impregnate the Queen, and die? He senses that there must be more for a man to do, but he doesn’t know what that might be.
Aside from being oddly sympathetic to the emerging patriarchy, the novel explores the role of men in society in a rather compelling way. In a culture where women and goddesses ruled, men were dispensible. They formed the army, of course, and were required to impregnate women, but as Theseus asks, what else?
I’m wondering if the drive to have a greater role isn’t what has driven men to their positions of dominance. Women have always had a role, a purpose, a place in society by virtue of their ability to have children. They haven’t, traditionally, had to question their place. The problem for women has been imprisonment in this one role; but the problem for men may be the lack of such a natural birthright. Men have no place but the place they create. One of the places they’ve created for themselves has to do with play. They made art, the playing with matter and with word, their place. And they made sport their place. But, it seems to me, they have also asserted over and over again the legitimacy, and even the primacy, of this place they created. The belief that what they do is more important than what women do has been characteristic of male culture for a long time. Is it born out of existential insecurity?